The Promotional Graphic for Battlefield Recovery
[ClearStory Productions: Fair use for the purpose of review]
Battlefield Recovery, which made its debut on Channel 5 in the UK last night in spite of the best efforts of the international archaeological community to get it withdrawn, has something of the air of a puppy which sits and looks at you with melting eyes, pleading forgiveness while a huge pile of poo steams quietly next to it on the carpet.
Like a litter of boisterous puppies, the programme’s litter of on screen presenters, UK metal detectorists Steven Taylor, Kris Rodgers and Adrian Kostromski along with US dealer in Nazi relics, Craig Gottlieb, run around a lot, play with their toys, bicker, play fight and high five their way through the farms and forests of the Baltic state of Latvia. They do this with the wide eyed enthusiasm of puppies setting out to explore the world, have a good time and find the next tasty and smelly object to pick up, toss around and chew to bits.
Unfortunately, what gets chewed to bits in “Battlefield Recovery” is the conflict archaeology of one of the most bitterly fought and least known fronts of World War Two, Latvia. Chewed up usually by the archaeologically inappropriately narrow, toothed bucket of the team’s backhoe ripping into the ground like a diesel driven version of an 18th century antiquarian’s gang of navvies sinking a shaft into a juicy round barrow looking for the goodies for the private museum and publication in the Gentleman’s Magazine [or Channel 5 in this case].
As they undertake this backhoe rake’s progress, production company ClearStory, clearly want us to understand and forgive these puppies their trespasses against archaeology, because this is the only programme I have ever seen which has a recurring subtitle which effectively says;
“We know what our guys are doing looks really bad, I mean really really bad, but it is all right because this was part of a longer excavation in a permitted area and the finds were recorded, Really, Really cross my heart, honest…”
OK, I made that up. Actually what the subtitle really says is that the episodes are short sections of much longer permitted digs [which we do not get to see, at least tonight] and;
“This work is not archaeology, it is battlefield recovery.
All finds were documented, preserved and offered to local museums.”
“The team was supervised at all times by internationally recognised, licensed organisations working in accordance with local Laws, landowner permissions and Government permits”
Unfortunately it is clear from what follows in the programme that even as the subtitles were being applied to the final, final, cosmetic makeover edit ClearStory had its fingers crossed behind its corporate back.
The effect of this intellectually absurd attempt to head off protests from the archaeological community by saying “We weren’t doing archaeology right, so you have no right to complain that we weren’t doing good archaeology.” producers ClearStory have simply confirmed what everyone suspected all along. That all they were interested in doing was making a cheap reality show about finding sexy military stuff. But why go after the stuff now?
The stated premise of Battlefield Recovery” is that, like some heroic metal detecting “Time Team” for the post “Time Team” era of quick fix reality TV, our four metal detecting Muskehounds have a mission to “save” history from “black diggers”.
[Do metal detectorist mums really send their children off to sleep to count bleeps and dream of finding another Staffordshire Hoard by saying “Go to sleep darling or the “Black Diggers“ will get you”? Perhaps Mackenzie Crook could explore the idea in series three of “Detectorists” if it happens, but I digress.]
This mission to save history before it is lost might be laudable except that the “history” our team was racing against time to save is recovered by no method other than digging large holes and pulling out the stuff found therein. But then again, in the terms of the programme it is really cool because you find lots of military stuff; better than that it is German military stuff, you know the ones with the really cool uniforms who Indiana Jones hated, and sometimes that stuff can even be worth money.
The trouble is the moment you start to mention potential monetary value as a reason for digging up history in order to save it, you are actually broadcasting to the audience “You can go out and buy a metal detector, visit an old military site and dig up lots of stuff you can sell like badges…” The very thing that the programme is supposed to be trying to fight against.
Here it is worth quoting two lines from presenter Craig Gottleib which highlight the consciously, unconsciously and incoherently mixed messages of “Battlefield Recovery”.
In tonight’s programme Mr Gottleib said of the fabled “Black Diggers”;
“…they want to get the artifact out of the ground, History be damned and go sell it and I have a problem with that.”
This is something of a contrast with Mr Gottleib’s biography on the original “Nazi War Diggers” website where he is quoted as saying;
“I feel that by selling things that are Nazi related and for lots of money, I’m preserving a part of history that museums don’t want to bother with”
Here there were no high end items like Rudolf Hess’s bath towel, Hitler’s pencil sharpener or etchings from Herman Goering’s collection of late 19th century Parisian porn [OK I made those up too, but they are not so far away from some items which have been sold on the Nazi memorabilia market]. Even so, the diggers did became really excited about ammunition pouches, stripper clips, gas masks and K98 bayonets, with the producers providing lovingly researched, but curiously flatly delivered, voice over descriptions about how each item was used by German soldiers, coupled with cutaways to archive film of the items in use.
Essentially the show then became a televisual Osprey Guide to the late World War Two German Army in Latvia. However, like the Osprey Guides, which are a series of cheap, sometime cheerful, sometimes very good, illustrated guides to the military history of various periods many of which deal with the Nazi period, almost completely absent from “Battlefield Recovery” was any sense of period and archaeological context, or even curiosity about period or cultural and archaeological context.
What was going on in the war in Latvia at this time? Who were the soldiers stationed here? Where had the civilians gone? What did the objects found in the anaerobic conditions in the bunker tell us about their identity and the daily life of the soldiers who occupied it, their food, the way they passed the time, where the latrines were. What insects and lice did they live with? Perhaps most importantly now they had been uncovered and exposed to the air, how were the objects discovered by the team going to be conserved, especially the items which had been first ripped apart for the camera like the ammunition pouches?
By fossicking around in the mud and not recording the position of anything there was no way of looking at the relationship between objects and asking questions such as was this the kit of one person or several? Was it even material dumped in the bunkers and trenches to tidy up the place as happened on the Western Front at the end of World War One.
While rooting around our, mud spattered metal detecting, terriers made considerable use of words like “personal” and the suggestion, expressed in pieces to camera, that the work was somehow bringing the team closer to the experience of the soldiers at the time. The irony of course is that for the audience it was doing precisely the opposite. A Wehrmacht soap dish is a Wehrmacht soap dish, made by the millions. What gives such a find significance is the the place it is found and things which are found with it and the team was shown actively destroying that potential significance. In other words, this “not archaeology” called “Battlefield Recovery” aka digging up stuff, was only one step on from the destruction wrought by the illegal digging the programme used as its justification for being in Latvia in the first place.
Not only that, it was outsiders destroying a piece of the history of someone else’s country in the way the Russians and the Germans had both tried three quarters of a century ago. Latvia has a sometimes uncomfortable relationship with World War Two, occupied by Russia, then Germany, then Russia again and Latvia was also the scene of some of the earliest and most brutal mass killings of the Holocaust in which some Latvians participated. Against that background it is hard to see the point of two Britons, an Anglo Pole and an American who collectively expressed no historical knowledge or sensitivity to place or period, descending on the Latvian countryside and giving the locals a walk on part in their own story to suggest where their visitors might find more stuff.
So far so contradictory and absurd then. However, there is one very serious point to be made about the content of “Battlefield Recovery” and that concerns safety, or rather the apparent lack of it exhibited in the excavation of a bunker which formed the narrative core of tonight’s first episode.
thePipeLine has already published one article alleging that ClearStory allowed its presenter team to be shown on screen apparently unearthing a German stick grenade. A practice which an experienced Explosive Ordnance Disposal Officer called “potentially lethal”. To that allegation, which ClearStory deny, we can now add appallingly unsafe excavation practices which were clearly shown in tonight’s programme.
Several times the presenters are shown working within range of the backhoe, but no-one wears hard hat and hi-viz. They bicker about the instructions given to the backhoe driver which could cause confusion, especially when language could be an issue and worst of all, they excavate a bunker in what is clearly stated to be waterlogged ground, stand on top of a void of unknown depth and content, and work in the excavated bunker, at least three meters down, with no stepping or shoring, directly below the backhoe which appears parked close to the edge of an excavation which could have destabilised the structure of the bunker leading to the potential for collapse. Individually these are actions which could have you thrown off any archaeological site in the UK, collectively they could be seen as a lack of competence and a duty of care on the part of ClearStory in placing their workforce into that situation.
The Battlefield Recovery Team in action with the backhoe, watch your toes guys!
[ClearStory Productions Fair Use for the purpose of review]
The Battlefield Recovery Team in action with the backhoe directly above. Note the heavy objects close to the edge of the trench and lack of hard hats.
[ClearStory Productions: Fair Use for the purpose of review]
Indeed, ClearStory and Channel 5 may be concerned tonight that someone will ask the Health and Safety Executive to investigate. Although the series was shot in Latvia and Poland, most EU countries have strong Health and Safety legislation and as a UK registered company ClearStory has a duty of care to its workforce under UK legislation. Ofcom might also take an interest as the Ofcom code prohibits the showing of dangerous imitable behaviour.
What might be even more disturbing for the critics of the series in the archaeological community is that we have not yet seen the presenter team exhuming any explosive ordnance or human remains. This suggests that the pile of poo dumped by our over enthusiastic metal detecting puppies which ClearStory and Channel 5 will have to clear up is set to grow over the next three weeks.
That being the case Paul O’Grady is a national treasure and he does a nice line in series about unloved dogs, so perhaps he could take over presentation duties and host yet another re-launch of “Battlefield Recovery”.
Of course, if Channel 5, Ofcom or even the H&SE decide this is a dangerous dog, then sad though it is for the unfortunate presenters, “Battlefield Recovery” or whatever we are calling it this week, will finally have to be put down to protect the public [not to mention the archaeology of Latvia and Poland].